Editorial: Reasons for optimism on the eve of a new decade

A century ago, the world stood at the brink of the Roaring Twenties, a decade of exuberance, prosperity and growth. Will 2020 usher in a similar era? There are reasons to believe so, though the scales are more finely balanced.

In the closing days of 1919, the ravages of war were slowly receding. For years, the great powers had been totally absorbed in the pursuit of death and destruction. Now they could move forward to rebuild and expand.

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No such liberation stands in the offing as we enter the decade ahead. Canada's economy, having weathered the recession of 2007-08, is stable, yet challenges abound.

The most potent political issue of the day, global warming, makes for an uncertain future. There is no consensus about how to balance action on this front, with the urgent need for additional revenues to reinforce our safety net programs.

We have a minority government in Ottawa, whose longevity is uncertain.

Britain is leaving the European Union, at a price that remains to be seen.

And south of the border, Donald Trump has been impeached, while the 2020 presidential election campaign looks likely to be the nastiest in recent times.

In short, the path ahead is unclear.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. The differences that divide us are far fewer than the ties that bind us.

Quebec nationalism has subsided.

Anger in Alberta that the West is ignored will simmer for a time, but we have typical Canadian ways of addressing such conflicts through compromise and civility.

Abroad, the lessons of the 20th century have largely been learned. Armed conflict settles nothing, and no-one gains from trade disputes, as the United States is learning.

The unprecedented access of people around the globe to information via the internet is creating new generations with broader horizons and immensely improved access to learning.

As a result, our world is safer and saner than at any time in history.

In medical science, the long-awaited rewards of decoding the genome are finally beginning to appear. Promising new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis are in sight.

Yes, these drugs still have some way to go before their full potential is realized. But the pace is gathering by the year.

Virtual medicine, where specialists at distant locations can diagnose disease and suggest treatment, is already with us. Robots are aiding precision in surgery.

In the workplace, smart machines will increasingly free humans from long hours of unsafe and repetitive tasks. Some have worried this may make human labour redundant, but that seems unlikely.

The Industrial Revolution created more jobs than it destroyed, and artificial intelligence may do the same. The decade ahead will revolutionize the work site.

Globally, altruism and enlightenment are slowly extinguishing famine and plagues. A century ago, the majority of the world’s population lived in poverty. Average life expectancy was 35.

Today only 10 per cent struggle below the poverty line, and life expectancy has more than doubled. These improvements will continue in the years to come.

AIDS, once invariably deadly, has been tamed, smallpox has been eradicated, and it is possible that polio may be all but wiped out by 2030.

These gains were made possible, in large part, by a growing commitment to international co-operation, unthinkable a century ago.

In short, the better instincts of humankind, in the past too often overshadowed by our faults, are slowly prevailing.

True, we are an aging society, and that poses challenges of its own. Yet our younger generation is more socially active, more progressive and more self-confident than ever.

There is reason to believe these trends will persist in 2020 and beyond, ensuring the long arc of history continues its steady curve toward betterment.

That, at any rate, is our hope as we prepare to welcome a new decade.

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